I participated in Pfizer’s Covid-19 vaccine trial—and it taught me a lot about Christian hope
Last summer, when I heard that Covid-19 vaccine trials would be conducted in my area, I couldn’t resist. Cincinnati Children’s Hospital Medical Center, a world-class hospital where Albert Sabin developed a highly effective polio vaccine in the 1950s, was conducting the tests. Here, I thought, would be a way to decrease my odds of getting a potentially debilitating or even fatal disease from the coronavirus.
The hospital was a test site for the Pfizer and AstraZeneca vaccines, and the pharmaceutical companies promised to be responsible—even to share methodologies publicly. But the trials are moving rapidly, and what once might have taken years is now happening in months, pushed forward on a wave of political pressure and moral urgency.
I was willing to ignore the risks, though, for perhaps a selfish motive: God willing, I really want to be around as my grandchildren come into the world and grow. So I applied online and happily handed over the details of my personal medical history to the researchers’ screening staff, hoping that I would be accepted to participate in any of the trials. Then I waited.
I am one of the 44,000 people who are taking a chance for the good of humanity. I’m good with that.
After a few months, I had given up hope. But in September, the Pfizer trial expanded, and I received an email on a Sunday afternoon, advising me to make an appointment right away. By that night I had an appointment for the following Tuesday. Only then did I begin to worry slightly.
By the time I arrived at the research center, I had been told of the blood drawing and potential for flu-like symptoms. And I’d managed to quell my fears of runaway mutations—new limbs and the like. My potentially life-changing visit turned out to be fairly routine and included caring nurses, lots of chit-chat between oodles of medical-history questions, temperature taking, one of those less-than-pleasant Covid-19 nasal tests and a few of the aforementioned needles.
As soon as I had the possible vaccine dose, I felt nothing—no swelling, nausea, soreness, none of the symptoms that I figured would tell me I was getting the real thing. My nurse matter-of-factly said that none of her patients to date had shown any of those effects. But neither she nor I had any idea whether I got the vaccine. I took the rest of the day off work, just in case. That was needless. I felt fine.
I didn’t tell many people, except a few neighbors (from over six feet away, of course). My wife, Cathy, mentioned it to friends and family. The reactions surprised me! Cathy, a home-health physical therapist who has braved donning P.P.E. and visiting patients’ homes since this pandemic started, had to endure people calling me a “health care hero.” She and I both knew better. I felt a twinge of guilt.
More than one said they were concerned for my health. Maybe I should have read that consent form more carefully, I thought. One African-American neighbor jokingly took a step back when I told her I had the injection. “Do you remember Tuskegee?” she said. Not to mention Henrietta Lacks. She was more than a little leery of the whole idea.
I wondered—and this might be challenging—could the coronavirus even be thought of as a sacramental; something in the everyday, incarnate, that points to our faith?
The strength of these reactions got me to thinking that maybe I’d taken more of a gamble than I had set out to. As this vaccine or salt water coursed through my veins, I became more introspective about the experience.
The first thing I heard was God urging me to hope. I had been experiencing a shallow version of it, along with dread, for many months. I suspect I am not alone. A lot of us are hoping to get these promising vaccines as soon as possible. And, even when they are available, we’ll still be hoping that it is both protective and safe for more than a few months.
My hope that I am vaccinated is pretty shallow. But doesn’t our experience of mundane hope bring us closer to understanding our deepest hope? We Christians perhaps have learned this fundamental, deep hope over a lifetime of practicing faith. That hope is at the heart of our life, one of the “big three” that Paul speaks of in his First Letter to the Corinthians: faith, hope and love.
In that hope, we believe in something we cannot see or touch, something that’s beyond us, somewhere in the future, but somehow in the now. We believe that, in spite of our pain or suffering, our closeness to death, our finite nature, we, too, have the life of the Resurrection. In that broadest sense, I wondered—and this might be challenging—could the coronavirus even be thought of as a sacramental; something in the everyday, incarnate, that points to our faith?
None of us will be well until we embrace that our deepest hope must go beyond the pharmaceutical industry, until we accept that our lives, vaccinated or not, rest in God’s hands.
I went back for my second shot three weeks later. As it happened, it was the day after Pfizer released its exciting news that its vaccine had a success rate of 90 percent. This time my visit was shorter. A different nurse than last time led me to a typical hospital room. I had no symptoms to report. We chatted a bit, this time about our beloved dogs and how each of us have tripped on them (my huge wrist brace was a giveaway). Then I got another nasal test, then another nurse came in with my second, final shot. “All done!” she said, before I even felt the needle. She paused for a second on her way out and turned to face me. “Thank you for doing this,” she said. “Your antibodies could save someone’s life.”
I read fiction for a half-hour while they watched to be sure that I didn’t have some quick, bad reaction. I didn’t. In fact, I never experienced any side effects, with either shot. I must be in the placebo group, I decided. That’s where my faith kicked in again, as I thought this all over. What if I am in the placebo group? Has this all been a waste? No, I could say, now with a bit of thought-out, prayed-over commitment. I would, and will, stay in the study for all of the altruistic reasons that friends had imagined were my motives in the first place. I am one of the 44,000 people who are taking a chance for the good of humanity. I’m good with that.
So that’s where I am now, still in the great unknown, along with everyone else. My odds might seem a little better than yours, but I still struggle with questions: Will I get Covid-19? Will it be debilitating? Will I have the lingering health effects of the post-Covid-19 “long haulers”? Can I trust those people whom I can’t avoid not to infect me?
The hope is that there will soon be about 20 million doses of a Pfizer vaccine being distributed around the United States. But we also know that the United States has 328 million people. Even as other vaccines come onto the market, we have a long haul ahead. And that’s our first-world selves. Eighty percent of the 1.2 billion doses Pfizer plans to produce in 2021 will go to developed nations, whose people comprise only 14 percent of the world population. The United States, Canada, Britain, the European Union, for example, all have preorders that will vaccinate their entire populations. The other 86 percent of the world is at the back of line.
The super-freezing required to store and transport Pfizer's mRNA vaccine presents staggering, perhaps insurmountable, challenges for reaching deeply into developing countries. For others, the cold-storage requirements may be less intense, but there are still many details to work out. The much-maligned World Health Organization is trying to coordinate an equitable vaccine distribution, but it is unlikely that a vaccine will be widely available on a global scale until 2024, a leading Indian manufacturer told The Washington Post. Oxfam suggests a more optimistic date of 2022.
How will our biblical challenge toward solidarity play into this global pandemic? Our faith calls us to look for ways to act as this unfolds. Sure, we hope to avoid illness. But none of us will be well until we embrace that our deepest hope must go beyond the pharmaceutical industry, until we accept that our lives, vaccinated or not, rest in God’s hands.
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– Who goes first? The ethics of distributing a Covid-19 vaccine.
– Reading C. S. Lewis in the Time of Covid
Correction, Nov. 18, 2020: Due to an editing error, the location of the Moderna vaccine trial was incorrect. It was held at UCHealth, not the Cincinnati Children's Hospital Medical Center. Due to recent news about the conditions required to store the Moderna vaccine, the paragraph about vaccine transport has been updated.